Powerless (2)

We are led into the living room by the patient's daughter, she shows us her mother – small, birdlike and perched in a chair. A tiny thing of skin and bones in a nightdress, head bent over, not making eye contact.

The GP had called us, the daughter handed me the letter the GP had left.

'Weight loss, chest infection, depression. Lost the will to live'. The letter said more, polite words to introduce this woman to the doctor at the hospital, but this is what it boiled down to.

Barely able to stand, unable to walk, we had been called to take this woman into hospital.

We explained what we were going to do and lifted her incredibly light body into our carry chair. Younger than my mother, but looking so much older we wrapped her in a blanket to keep her warm.

Into the ambulance and the normal tests were run, pulse, temperature, blood sugar. We took her blood pressure, her arm so thin we had to use the cuff we normally use for small children. Through this poking and prodding the head never lifted up, the eyes barely opened, the mouth spoke no words. Her vital signs were normal, this was an illness of the mind.

You can tell when there is someone with depression in the room, it is an aura that all but the most oblivious can notice – the people around them talk quietly, walk softly, try not to disturb them. No-one wants to say the wrong thing, hurt the person more than they are already hurting.

The ambulance moves off and I start with some simple questions, yes or no answers, my voice kept soft.

She answers and emboldened I start to talk to her about other things. Slowly her eyes open and her head lifts up. She tells me about tragedies, about illness, about loss. When you have depression it is impossible to remember the good times, only the times that keep you low, under the thumb of this illness.

I wish there was something I could say to make her feel better, but I know that nothing I say can help. I want to tell her that it will be all right, that one day she will feel happier – but I can't say that because it probably isn't true. I can make sick people happier just by talking with them, but I know that this illness has me beaten. She will sit there and she will refuse food and she will probably die.

And I feel powerless to help her.


This is the second attempt at this, the first one vanished into the ether and was, I think, a lot better than this post.

8 thoughts on “Powerless (2)”

  1. If the first version was better, then it must have been amazing. Because that was an exceptionally emotional piece of writing.Mental illness is horrible to deal with, personally and professionally, especially when the two cross over. I guess you've got to take solace in the fact that although you can't win everything, you can help an awful lot of people, and that you tried your best to make a difference to that woman.

  2. This was a very powerful post, and I agree with Nick above – mental illness is the most difficult thing to deal with. I think realising that – because I attempted to help people fighting with depression and realised that there was pretty much nothing I could do to help, was a major factore in diluting my desire to go into healthcare.

  3. Maybe you couldn't help her, but you certainly help me when I'm down. We both know it won't “cure” me. But as someone struggling with mental illness myself, your wit and your kindness help me through the dark times. Sometimes just knowing someone is out there who cares, and who really shouldn't, is enough to stop you from doing something.

  4. It is one of the hardest things to combat! and an extremely difficult thing to witness. Some say to imagine the person as they might have been when young to try and fight your feelings of helplessness. The hardest though is knowing that there isn't much you can do. The only glimmer of hope is that the kindness and compassion that you show in that small bit of time penetrates through her barrier and can set her slowly on to the road of recovery.

  5. There is no-one better than you to do the job you do – you've given me so much pleasure reading your two books and now I'm hooked on your website. Any patient in your care is a truly lucky patient and this lady is no exception.

  6. You did what you could – took her to those who can help and showed her respect and kindness. You also opened the shutters a little to let some light in.However little it seems in the greater scheme of things, you did help.

  7. Very well put, TR.Mental Health issues are hard to comprehend. You break a leg it's obvious. You have a mental breakdown it can be so easily masked and those with no empathy believe the golden words of 'pull yourself together' will work. How far away from the truth is that? TBH the UK ambulance services have no proper training (of which i am aware) to help people with mental health problems. We're so cultured in to response times rather than taking time with people. IN short it disgusts me. It's refreshing to come across staff that have a natural affinity and empathy and are able to give a little something to those who're depressed etc. You never know when your words actually make help someone take a positive step to helping themselves.Well done, Tom. Lesson to be learned by many.

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